Though he describes himself as "fairly typical for [his] vintage," artist Adam Feibelman is far from average. This big-hearted Albuquerque native works in multiple media and has twenty years' worth of exhibitions, awards, residencies, and public commissions under his belt. A scroll through his Instagram, far from the typical boredom scrolling, is a wealth and a study of light. Much of this comes from his massive, free-hand, paper-cut works, dazzling in black and white. But look a little further, and his work in color is equally radiant. We wonder how he gained this relationship to light and how his ADHD, dyslexia, and scotopic sensitivity are related. Scroll even further still, and you'll get some bonus photos of his adorable family that he and his wife are currently raising in the California Bay Area.
In his early years, his story was much closer to average. A dyslexic student struggling in and out of school, art became his safety net. About his beginnings as an artist and his introduction to graffiti art, he says:
"If I was supposed to be doing my homework, you would probably find me scribbling pictures in the book rather than focusing on assigned lessons. In my early high school years, graffiti writers like Giant and Gray, and Jolt, who were all from Albuquerque, were making names for themselves alongside hip-hop culture sweeping the country. I had already been painting my childhood bedroom walls with Calvin and Hobbes, so when my friend Heath gave me a can of spray paint, it was as natural as walking."
His parents realized before he did that this was more than a hobby or just a bored kid. His mom took him to Oakland to visit the California College of Arts and Crafts. Surrounded by artists and cute California girls, "a dream opened up in [his] brain." With help from his Dad and his high school art teacher, he put together a rudimentary portfolio, and his journey picked up speed.
Much of Adam's work focuses on political, environmental, and humanitarian issues. He tells us that this direction started young when hearing of his grandparents' flight from Nazi Germany. This left him with the lasting belief that all humans should be treated equally. He went on to say that it's more than just a belief, "It’s that if the balance is off, I do not feel comfortable. That discomfort will inherently be expressed in my artwork because it’s who I am." He's currently tackling this imbalance through works addressing climate change, "the overarching monster that encompasses all other things."
It's not a stretch to imagine that he's also correcting this imbalance by how he interacts with his own neurodivergence. He describes how scotopic sensitivity influences his work:
"If anything, I’ve learned how to play with scotopic sensitivity syndrome within my artwork; a book page is this fixed thing where I have no control over what I’m seeing. There was a period of about a year where every morning I played what I call the optic games where I would try to make these patterns that would send my eyes off into a psychedelic cluster fuck, and I absolutely love it! I also think it’s the sensitivity to contrast that gives me a unique ability to see what I’m doing. It’s a very bizarre thing, but it’s mine."
This spirit of play and reclamation gets to the heart of what many neurodivergent artists know. To understand the strengths of your "weakness", multiply the light instead of dividing it. Much in this same manner, Adam took the grief of being dyslexic as a kid and worked in collaboration with other dyslexic creators to build the Dyslexic Dictionary project at Arion Press in San Francisco. Students around the world were invited to respond with postcards. These wise and witty responses are truly heartwarming.
So, what do we take away from our brief encounter with this average, extraordinary human? I'll let you pick your favorite moment and leave you with mine: "For a long time, I’ve felt like the challenges are the reward."
Re-Route Magazine (RR Mag): Hi Adam, I'm excited to have the opportunity to speak with you today and learn more about your journey as an artist. Who is Adam?
Really at the end of the day, I am just some guy who is born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I think I’m fairly typical for my vintage.
What is your Neurodivergence?
I’m an ADHD Dyslexic who may or may not be on the spectrum.
What inspired you to pursue graffiti as an art form, and how did you get started?
From a pretty early age, one way I escaped my difficulties in school was to sink into what I loved the most, which was making things. If I was supposed to be doing my homework, you would probably find me scribbling pictures in the book rather than focusing on assigned lessons. In my early high school years, graffiti writers like Giant, Gray, and Jolt, who were all from Albuquerque, were making names for themselves alongside hip-hop culture sweeping across the country. I had already been painting my childhood bedroom walls with Calvin and Hobbes, so when my friend Heath gave me a can of spray paint, it was as natural as walking.
My other friends, the Sucre brothers, lived in this house where their mom (who wasn’t there very often) let them and their friends paint all over the backyard. It gave me the opportunity to practice to the point of being really ok at it. Honestly, I never thought it would lead to anything, though. Graffiti in Albuquerque ran side by side with gangster stuff which influenced me to get in some trouble, and my grades started falling off a cliff. Luckily my parents had the idea that maybe I needed to pursue what I spent the most time on. So my mom decided to take me on a trip to Oakland to see CCAC. One look at the school and the California girls and a dream opened up in my brain. This was a much better outlook than anything I had seen back home. With marker drawings, high school paintings (my art teacher was a saint), and photographs of graffiti, me and my dad thumbtacked art to a corkboard and made something like a portfolio to see if I could get into art school.
Could you tell me more about the Yozo Hamaguchi Award in printmaking that you won while studying at California College of Arts?
The Yozo Hamaguchi Award is a prize that was set up to reward achievement in printmaking at CCAC. The award was judged and given out by the printmaking faculty. It just so happened that the years leading up to my winning was the beginning of the first .com explosion in the Bay Area. So the endowment for the scholarship had ballooned up to some crazy amount. My two main print professors, Ken Regnal and Jack Ford, realized they had way more money to give away than usual. They also realized that if they mentioned the balloon to the administration, chances were they wouldn’t allow it all to be given away. So the two guys picked and announced the scholarships without telling the administrators, and a handful of people got free school, thanks to them. Yet more art saints. There is a theme here. A year or two later, the .com bubble burst.
What are some challenges and rewards of working with stencils, and how do you overcome them? How do you avoid paper cuts? (I had to ask.)
For a long time, I’ve felt like the challenges are the reward. The challenges left the door open for experimentation and learning how to problem-solve in the process. I would not be who I am today without those process hurdles. My earlier work with stencils and photorealistic images had me learn the importance of tiny steps. It’s bled over into my everyday life as well, how to determine what to do when. Priceless stuff only 20 years of practice is gonna get you. Now I’ve come out the other side feeling like I can take any medium and know exactly what to do with it almost intuitively.
How did your diagnosis with Scotopic Sensitivity affect your experience with reading and education, and how have you learned to manage it in your adult life?
I was diagnosed with scotopic sensitivity and dyslexia in probably first grade, which really didn’t help much other than putting me in special education classes. I think the Albuquerque public school system did the best it possibly could for me. Over all these years, the only thing that I have found that actually helps is practicing reading. I need to be reading every day if I want to pull anything from it. That’s been one huge benefit of having kids I get to read to them every day, and I’ve got to say, I’m really good at it now. Maybe...hahahahaha.
I looked up Scotopic Sensitivity and was able to view a few images of how it presents itself. Your stencil work is so intricate. Does Scotopic Sensitivity cause you any discomfort?
No. On the contrary, if anything, I’ve learned how to play with scotopic sensitivity syndrome within my artwork. A book page is this fixed thing where I have no control over what I’m seeing. There was a period of about a year where every morning I played what I call the optic games where I would try to make these patterns that would send my eyes off into a psychedelic cluster fuck, and I absolutely love it. I also think it’s the sensitivity to contrast that gives me a unique ability to see what I’m doing. It’s a very bizarre thing, but it’s mine.
I was really moved by your and others' work on the Dyslexic Dictionary project. There was a sense of buoyancy to the works that I wasn't expecting. Can you say a little about what that exhibition meant to you and what stuck in your head from the student postcard responses?
As I was growing up, dyslexia was always there. It was always something I was butting up against. I’m pretty sure it’s the root cause of my ADHD. It was definitely why I was so bad in school. It was an aspect of myself that I didn’t like. I didn’t like feeling dumb. Art made me feel smart, it made me feel secure in myself, so I was attracted to that. With all that said, I think it’s important to identify those things that have caused your grief over the years and see if you can help make it better for someone else. Dyslexia is definitely something that’s in my wheelhouse, so when I had a meeting with Tamsin Smith at Arion Press, I suggested to her the idea of a show at a legendary book print shop, inviting dyslexics in. I honestly hadn’t realized how much things had changed in terms of education and response to the needs of dyslexic people. So this effort to reach out to anyone who is dyslexic to be involved was remarkably easy. The postcards that came flooding in from the kids around the world just really filled my cup.
Your artwork frequently incorporates themes related to humanitarian causes, environmental issues, or political subjects. Could you elaborate on your motivations for doing so and share which particular issues hold significance for you?
I remember, as a young kid, hearing the story of my grandparents fleeing Nazi Germany and thinking to myself that is fucking terrible. A part of understanding that story was a deep-rooted belief in the equality of humans. When I say deep-rooted, I mean ingrained in my DNA. My grandparents gave up religion because no God would let that happen to humans, and that is in my DNA. It’s not a belief; it’s that if the balance is off, I do not feel comfortable. That discomfort will inherently be expressed in my artwork because it’s who I am.
What social issues or broader ideas are you currently exploring?
These days I would say 90% of the art I do has something to do with climate change. It’s the big one. It’s the overarching monster that encompasses all other things.
How do you see your art evolving in the future, and what new techniques or mediums are you interested in exploring?
My work is in a constant state of evolution. Right now, I’m working on really large, challenging public commissions, as well as studio work that I’ve never been happier with. I guess the biggest thing that’s happened in the last couple of years is that I no longer rely on photo references or computers. I don’t have any tricks anymore. It feels really good that it’s evolving into some sort of base state, some sort of beautifully reduced sauce. Maybe it’s refined sugar or just pure fool's gold.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists who are just starting out in their careers?
I’d say if it’s really what you want to do, if it’s going to be how you feed your kids, tuck your pride away. Listen, learn, stay objective, and have fun because it’s not going to be easy.
Could you tell me about any upcoming exhibitions or projects you have in the works?
I am just finishing up a commission for Antioch BART station, and I have three more major commissions lined up through the end of this year and the beginning of next. There will be some exhibitions, but at this point, I can’t talk about them. When I can, I will!
Adam, I appreciate you hanging with us today and allowing us to get to know more about you. How can someone purchase your artwork or get in touch with you to commission a piece?
No problem, my pleasure, anything for a good cause. If anyone is interested in purchases or commissions, they should just email me directly through my website adamfeibelman.com.